Buehrle, White Sox hung out to dry by Pavano

Buehrle, White Sox hung out to dry by Pavano

MINNEAPOLIS -- Winning the American League Central won't come easy for the White Sox.

Sure, it might have looked as if the White Sox were going to run away and hide when they ripped off 26 wins in 31 games to take the division's top spot. But with two straight losses suffered at Target Field, following Minnesota's 3-2 victory before 40,637 on Saturday, the point was reaffirmed to the visitors that this race figures to be a three-team tug-o-war down to the season's final week.

That piece of information actually is nothing Ozzie Guillen's crew didn't already know.

"Yeah, no one's going to run away with it, I don't think. It would be nice, but I doubt that will happen," said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, following Saturday's pitchers' duel between Mark Buehrle and Carl Pavano, played in a snappy one hour and 52 minutes. "It's going to go down to the last week, and hopefully we're involved with it. Right now we are but that doesn't mean it's a guarantee."

"We have a lot of games against these guys and you see what they've done the first half," Buehrle said. "Near the end of the first half they struggled, but they played good enough the first two months and we didn't, so it's definitely going to come down to the end, especially playing these guys so many times."

Much like Friday's 7-4 loss to the Twins (48-43), the White Sox (50-40) had a chance to tie or win the game in the ninth with two of their best hitters at the plate. On Friday, Alex Rios flew out to center with the bases loaded and Paul Konerko struck out swinging against Jesse Crain.

Saturday's conclusion started with pinch-runner Brent Lillibridge on third, replacing Omar Vizquel after his leadoff double to left against Pavano (11-6), one out and Konerko and Carlos Quentin in line to be Minneapolis heroes. But Pavano fanned Konerko and retired Quentin on a ground ball to shortstop J.J. Hardy, handing the White Sox consecutive losses for the first time since June 27-28 against the Cubs and Royals.

"He's thrown some good games against us, even when he was with Cleveland. But tonight was obviously as good he gets," said Konerko of Pavano. "It was a good pitchers' duel. You just have to tip your hat to him. He made a couple mistakes, but other than that, his location and command was good all night.

"I felt good. I had a couple of good swings off him but that last at-bat, he just beat me. I wouldn't do anything different. He just beat me and that's that."

Pavano limited the White Sox to two runs on seven hits in his complete-game effort, going without a walk and striking out six. Konerko drove in both runs via his single in the first bringing home Rios, who reached on a bloop double to left-center, and his 21st home run with one out in the fourth.

Konerko's 381-foot blast to left cut the Twins lead to 3-2, an advantage Minnesota grabbed in a matter of moments in the second. Buehrle, who also went the distance without issuing a walk and striking out three, yielded nine hits but only allowed more than one hit in an inning in the second.

Unfortunately for Buehrle and the White Sox, those four hits in that frame came consecutively. Michael Cuddyer opened the inning with a double and scored on Delmon Young's single. Young came home on Jason Kubel's triple off of the center-field wall, and then Kubel scored on Danny Valencia's double. It didn't take long to turn a 1-0 White Sox cushion into a 3-1 deficit.

"You make two good pitches and they get bloop hits, they find holes, and then you make two mistakes and they crush 'em," said Buehrle, who threw 95 pitches, compared to 104 from Pavano. "That's why sometimes the game is frustrating. You just have to keep battling, stay out of the big inning."

"It was flowing," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said of Pavano and Buehrle. "[Buehrle] gets going, we got some runs off him early. He gets going and the pace, you keep telling guys to slow down and step out but it's strike one, strike two. And normally Carl works a little more methodically than [Buehrle] does. Kind of walks around a little bit, but I think they both got into a real nice flow there and they were making pitches and making plays."

Minnesota made a big play, of sorts, against Konerko in his final at-bat, going changeup, fastball, changeup to get the strikeout, according to catcher Drew Butera. And with Lillibridge being stranded at third as the game ended, three teams now stand within 2 1/2 games of the division lead.

The AL Central race to the playoffs won't be decided any time soon. But it's a fact the White Sox already fully understood, to a man, as they go for the four-game split behind Freddy Garcia on Sunday.

"There will be probably 12 different momentum shifts before it's over, three-, four-game stints here and there," Konerko said. "It's going to turn a lot. You just have to hang in there and not get too high or low. Any time you play a four-game set with a team on the road, you want to win the series but you definitely want to come away with the split. We can still do that tomorrow. It's just going to be a lot of momentum."

"At the beginning of the season, we knew it was going to be a battle all year long," Guillen said. "Like I said, we are prepared for that."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.